Friday, January 23, 2015

Transcending Isolation in Classrooms: Google Docs and How to Learn as a Community

From Sir Ken Robinson's talk on Changing Paradigms
A former student came to visit me yesterday during my lunch break, and of course, we talked about a lot of different things – the college courses he’s taking, what books we’ve read recently, some of this year’s major news events, and so on… (Landry, always a pleasure man!) We also talked about authorship and the art of writing, both acknowledging how now - more than ever – the practice of writing is rarely performed alone. Take the television renaissance of recent years, for instance. If Henry Fielding made popular the “epic in prose” (better known as the novel), television writers may well have done the same in recent years for what we’ll call the birth of “the epic in moving images.” My former student and I found ourselves reflecting on the fact that these new moving-image-epics (aka tv shows) are usually written by a community of creative writers.  It’s getting harder and harder, that is, to isolate an author when reading/viewing contemporary texts, whether they be print or image based. Simply put, writing is (more often than not) a collaborative process for most of us these days. More and more, we do things together, but as I write this I take a look around my classroom, which for the most part looks like any other room at any other campus. And what I notice is this: the designs of our classroom spaces – the walls, the singular desks, the rows, perhaps a lectern at front, the teacher’s desk of course crammed in one corner of the room – are born out of an ethos of another era. Traditional classroom designs, I think, are married to a model of education which emphasized and focused on the dynamics of the isolated individual’s learning process as opposed to one modelled on the equally important process of learning-as-a-community. Sometimes classrooms are isolating, and if we don’t think about such things the danger is that the learning environment we cultivate may be one where everyone is learning alone – and not together. That to me is a problem when considering how collaborative and connected our world has become.

As a teacher who values community and human interaction, I’ve always had an uneasy relationship with technology due to its impact on how we relate to each other as social beings. Throw in the techno-philistine utopianism of some Silicon-Valley-thinking and one could say that my relationship to tech could even be characterized as one that’s ill-at-ease to say the least. But some of this is obviously misguided. Technology, ironically enough, has helped me transcend the isolationist designs of my 20th century classroom for purposes of creating communities of collaborative learning. An epiphany for me has been the realization that technology can bring us together in very human ways (for some this is probably obvious…). More than ever, my students are learning for each other, inquiring for each other, studying for each other, and we as educators could adopt parallel strategies as the curricular guides & planners/designers of our learning environments. With this said, I want to share some examples of how tech tools are helping create more meaningful experiences where we learn as a community.

Studying for each other: Like many these days, I’m not a big fan of “high stakes” tests and final exams – partly due to my dislike for punitive approaches to scoring. Also, exams often reinforce one of the less interesting levels of the learning process – namely, that of rote memorization.  With this in mind, the idea of presenting my students with a difficult, monolithic test where mistakes on the student’s part are kind of like “gotcha” moments in what was otherwise a noble effort to get things right after a night of sleepless, exhaustive studying makes no sense to me. Also, what an isolating experience: sitting alone for 2 hours trying to keep in view an amount of information & knowledge that would be overwhelming to any person of regular intelligence.

One simple tech tool that has helped add value and meaning to the whole exam experience for me and for my students has been Google Docs. I’ve started using the Google platform as a way to create with my students a collaborative review over what we covered that given semester.  All I do is create the doc and put down some basics: some literary terms & concepts, a list of works studied with some themes briefly noted, some minimal bullet points for possible essay prompts, and reminders of other various things covered such as grammatical rules of usage or MLA citation guidelines. Once the students join, they transform what was a 1 page skeletal outline into a multi-page, living document where students are teaching each other, defining things for each other, and unpacking literary texts & themes for each other. I just sit back and nudge ‘em here or there if I sense the conversation has diverted from the proper target, but they (the students) basically make the exam. I simply take the language they’ve decided upon and give it back to them on the day of the test. It’s a slam dunk experience for everyone, and the easy nature of the test is no indicator of a lack of learning or a lack of an academic challenge: quite the opposite! The challenge was a more meaningful one that took place over a 2 week period leading up to the test: it was the process which preceded the testing experience. Some of my favorite moments were when students found themselves in conversations of negotiation over wording or whether one was right to apply a certain theme or concept to this or that text. Again, I just sat back unless they veered off course (which really didn’t happen since they clearly knew what resources they could access to compile the info needed.) I also let them synthesize the essay prompts and negotiate which 3 should make the exam. Their discussions were a joy to witness! 

What are other ways in which we as teachers can employ new technologies or new designs to our learning environments in order to overcome the trappings of isolation?

More Examples of this to come...

Friday, January 16, 2015

Assessing Collaboration through Game Play

After working with my sophomore English classes on skills of teamwork and collaboration, I needed some method of understanding how much they have learned. Unfortunately, the only tools available included minute observational guidelines that served more quantitative than qualitative results. As well, I felt that the tasks given to the students were not truly pushing them to rely on each other to accomplish a goal.

With that in mind, I created a puzzle challenge for my classes using the concept of ambition since we are reading both Frankenstein and Macbeth. The puzzle started with a Schoology page that included a (key) poem that I wrote and a coded quote from Napoleon using a Caesar substitution cipher. That led to another website that required a password (which they had to discover), which led to text they had to decipher from the key, generating a number which answered a question on the same Schoology page. If you wish to challenge yourself, you can find the puzzle on Schoology by joining the course with this access code: MJQGM-D8W4M.

My students accepted the challenge readily, which I think started with a sense that it would be an easy assignment, much like my past assignments. This anticipation came primarily from the reward I offered, a significant amount of XP points for the classroom avatar system (Classcraft). I used Galileo Educational Network 4-point Teamwork Assessment to rate the students, and discovered several important points that this difficult challenge exposed.

1.   Lack of communication, clear objectives, and trust: Students would often quickly begin working on decoding the message without vocalizing their thoughts to the rest of the group. There was no consensus on how to approach the problem or how to divide the labor. One student used an online decoder (to my delight), but failed to tell others on his team that he had moved past the first step. Another team member decoded the answer 20 minutes later, only then realizing that everyone else had moved on. The lack of trust was evident between higher and lower level students, often resulting in “freezing out” of information and disparaging comments as the lower level students struggled to understand the basics of cryptography. The lack of clear objectives (especially at the end of the challenge) resulted in unnecessary tangents and inefficient work.

2.  No division of labor or theoretical communication: If objectives were realized, students would often fail at dividing the amount of labor (breaking the codes into parts, researching different paths, creative style vs logical style) that would have helped to solve the problem. A few times, I even noticed how an entire team would crowd around one laptop (they all have tech) to solve a password instead of distributed effort. There was a lack of leadership to pull team members away from fruitless details to instead focus on overarching concepts of the puzzle, especially going back to the original poem as the key to each step of the puzzle. One team spent 20 minutes arguing about a Macguffin I put in the text instead of asking one person to follow that thread, leaving others to explore alternative avenues.

3.  Meta information about resilience and morality: As I assessed the teams, I was interested to discover the amount of time it took for students to divide themselves into three groups. After thirty minutes, a quarter of the students would simply disengage and quit (often lower students who were discouraged by cryptography and only teams that could not move past the first step) or a quarter of the students moved across the line of morality to meet their ambition (via brute hacking or trying to steal information from other groups). The third group, just under 50% of them, continued grinding at a solution, and continued over the following weekend before we discussed the puzzle the next week.

4.     Examples of game emotional concepts of fiero, naches, and flow: I’ve been researching gamification and understood these emotional concepts, but it was nice to see them occur in the class. There were many strong “fiero” moments of joy at solving a level, giving students a sense of accomplishment, especially for a few students who don’t have many opportunities to shine in normal class time. The sense of group success, or “naches”, helped to build some trust in the team, although as evidenced above, there is still more to construct. Finally, the focus and determination by many students exhibited the joy of “flow”, the complete immersion in a challenge simply because it is a challenge. I’m hoping this creates a sense of resiliency that will carry forward throughout their lives.

Despite the seeming failures I noticed, I’m excited. I’ve found some verifiable data that I can work with and a set of tools to correct and enable those failures. I’m planning to design more challenges throughout this spring, especially as part of a gamified version of Macbeth I’ve designed, and hopefully this will improve my students ability to work as larger groups. I’m still working on how to specifically address the failures above, so any feedback would be appreciated. More later.

-Seth Burgess

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

More on Authentic Audiences for 21st Century Students: Why We Read, Write, and Think for Each Other

Joel points out in his post the fact that independent school teachers often have a lot of pedagogical & curricular autonomy, which is mostly a good thing… mostly. 21st century technologies, however, have brought changes to almost all areas of our cultural landscape – changes which make clear that teachers with autonomy need to revisit questions about the benefits of collaboration and connectedness (if not for their sake then for the sake of today’s students). One reason: we’re not the only experts to whom students have access whether at school or outside of the traditional classroom. Technology has made this evident and undeniable. More importantly, in my opinion, connectedness and collaboration make it possible now for teachers to provide authentic audiences for their students’ voices in ways unthinkable in the recent past, and one thing that can bestow purpose and meaning on a student’s learning experience is the presence of a real audience.

More than ever, it’s possible to have students read, write, and think for each other (as opposed to doing such things for their singular teacher) – making the activity more real, more connected, and perhaps more fun. In recent years, I’ve been employing various digital, web 2.0 technologies to get my students to connect and collaborate with students in classrooms from other campuses. (Go here to see how my students at The OakridgeSchool connected with classes at two other campuses, Greenhill School & TheHockaday School, to read together James Joyce’s collection Dubliners. Of course, we did it again last year, this time studying William Shakespeare’s history play, Richard III.)

One of my favorite methods we experimented with was getting students from one class to frame questions for their peers in other classes from different campuses. We did this through various means:
-my students at Oakridge collaboratively posted blog articles (here) that always concluded in a series of questions for Greenhill and Hockaday students.  Greenhill and Hockaday would respond employing various modalities of expression such as text, video, or mp3. (More examples: Greenhill which leads to Oakridge's response;  Hockaday which leads to Oakridge's response; Greenhill which leads to Oakridge's response and then to Hockaday's final word)
-we also had the advantage of augmenting our digital collaboration with visits in person to each other’s campuses – something that’s only possible with the benefit of geographical proximity. Using the responses of the Greenhill students (which were born out of the blog), Mr. Garza (teacher from Greenhill) visited The Hockaday School, bringing his students' questions to their Hockaday peers.
-Hockaday blogged about their perspective of the visit, providing insight and more questions for both Greenhill and Oakridge classes as we struggled with what were very difficult literary works.
-Greenhill students made use of Audacity to record an mp3/podcast both for Oakridge and Hockaday students. Their recording was guided, of course, by the evolution of questions being posed by classes from the other campuses.
-Using GarageBand, Oakridge then responded in kind by putting together their podcast response; here's some highlights:

Oakridge student citing Hockaday student's blog post
At this point, students were citing each other by name, complimenting each other’s readings with expressions of appreciation. They were reading and thinking for each other, serving as meaningful audiences in a community of collaborators. I can’t emphasize it enough: namely, the joy they felt once this exchange became real – once the students received a validating response from an unknown peer who heard them and who cared. As a teacher who is a community of one, I can’t recreate that kind of meaningful learning experience on my own, but by collaborating and connecting with other campuses, such an experience can be designed and realized with ease and joy.

Greenhill student addresses Hockaday teacher's point
What happened next, however, was even more amazing: simply put, we started writing for each other. For me, this first occurred when my students sat for their 9 week midterm. Instead of a comprehensive exam, Oakridge students wrote essays for their Hockaday and Greenhill audience and posted highlights on the blog. (See Hockaday’s response here) Never had I seen developing writers operating so keenly in terms of connecting word, audience, and purpose in their writing. These students weren’t grudgingly writing for me, the teacher; they were eagerly sounding out their voices to peer groups across the digital channels of the internet. Eventually this evolved into composing more formal papers to conclude the project, but in many ways, their compositions were not traditional at all. Students wrote to each other (to each other’s teachers). Many of my writers chose to cite blog, mp3, and video pieces posted by students from other campuses. It was a real learning community full of curious writers and readers, open-minded speakers and listeners, and there was so much joy! By formally engaging nontraditional, digital resources, students were learning the connections between digital literacy, research, and composition as well (while validating each other’s voice in the process!).
So why should we integrate technology to craft authentic audiences for our students? When a student writes for their teacher and that instructor is the only one who will see that composition, why should she make it great? But if she’s writing for a communal audience of peers and teachers alike, not only will she feel the push to make it better, she will act on the desire to make it great because there’s an authentic audience! Bottom line, it makes their learning meaningful, relevant, and worthwhile, and one might just catch them enjoying the process as well.

-Jared Colley

Sunday, January 11, 2015

An authentic audience: Lit Genius and SoundCloud

My family and friends are always surprised at how rare it is that I am formally reviewed or evaluated... by a colleague, by an administrator, even by my students. I called roll for the first time in August of 1993. Since then I've been reviewed formally six or seven times. My class, for years, for better or worse, has been mine.

I'm not sure how to think about this autonomy. In certain courses, this autonomy has led me to be quite complacent--I knew which students I could lean on for keeping the discussion alive, and I knew which students I would criticize in my comments for not being adventurous enough. Sometimes, I needed somebody to tell me that I was coasting. But I've also had far too many successes that went...I dunno...underappreciated, or completely unknown. How could I get feedback from colleagues without the formal staginess of a review? How could I let people see what great work my students were doing? This trimester, my junior poetry seminar has worked because I have assembled for my students an authentic audience, and they have been mindful of that audience, both online and IRL.

Lit Genius allows my students to read critically in and for a community. The Genius site rewards students "IQ points" for annotating a text. Sometimes, it's a comment that they want preserved from our conversation; sometimes, it's a comment that they make before class. Since there's an IQ to earn, my students could see rewards for their efforts and see their progress compared with their classmates. After a couple of weeks, I asked them what should earn more points--defining a difficult vocabulary word or making an incisive thematic observation? Well, they replied, without knowing a word, you might not be able to make an incisive observation. My students began to appreciate their roles in deepening the understanding of others, and without quite being aware of it, they began to to think critically about which of their skills needed sharpening. (One student told me, "I don't want to always be the one upvoting somebody else's comment.") In turn, by "following" my students' activity on Lit Genius, I can offer very precise skills-based suggestions: "Thanks, J. You seem to have meter down. Look closely tomorrow at Lowell's use of slant rhyme--I'm interested to see what you think about it." Please have your students poke around in and comment on our work! Simultaneous with this public curating of our class discussion, I've experienced great success in building community on my campus through poetry.

As a father of three little kids, I've been invited by lower school teachers to join their classes as a "mystery reader". At story time each day, the kids don't who will show up to read, and their faces light up to see a new person each day. So I stole the idea, reaching out to my entire campus for mystery guests to show up and read to my juniors. The response was overwhelming--all departments, all divisions, teachers, learning specialists, coaches, administrators, etc. Fourth-grade teachers teared up to see how mature their former students had grown; coaches delighted in the chance to discuss what James Wright gets right about athletics; trusted colleagues on other campuses Skyped in their readings; and even renowned poet Joshua Mehigan jumped in to help. Now I have an expanding playlist that not only reminds me of the trust that I have built among my colleagues but also helps reinforce for my students the importance of narrative voice for each literary work.

At the risk of resorting to HS-English-teacher stereotype, allow me to quote Whitman: "Unscrew the locks from the doors! / Unscrew the doors themselves from their jambs!" Open up your classrooms. Or at the very least, step through my open door, look around, listen, and let me know how we can help each other out.